Rural KY doctor describes struggle to find beds for patients amid COVID-19 surge, staffing shortages

coronavirus, COVID-19 hospital
Posted at 12:42 PM, Dec 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-29 12:42:36-05

WAYNE COUNTY, Ky. (LEX 18) — Health officials are concerned the holidays could intensify the COVID-19 surge, driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.

While Kentucky state leaders have said there's no reason to panic, a doctor at one rural hospital says the Commonwealth can't afford another spike since they're already struggling to find beds.

"It's just been a real stress to our system," said Dr. Cory Ryan, the chief medical officer at Wayne County Hospital in Monticello.

Earlier this month, he tweeted an urgent plea to state leadership as he tried to find beds for four critically ill patients.

His post read, in part: "We have called every Kentucky hospital with the means to care for these patients, and there are no BEDS."

Nearly three weeks later, Ryan says the situation hasn't improved.

"We're calling 30, 40 hospitals, and we're using referral hospitals we've never used in my 20 years," he told LEX 18 on Tuesday. "We're sending patients to Ohio, and Tennessee, and hospitals we've never even thought about using."

As a critical access hospital with no ICU, WCH relies on bigger hospitals for some of their sickest patients. So when those facilities run out of beds or don't have enough employees, Ryan says small rural hospitals also pay the price.

"Now we're housing critical patients in our ER," he said. "Last night, we held a ventilated patient and a patient that's had a heart attack that we can't get anywhere."

Federal data shows across Kentucky, an average of 90% of ICU beds are currently occupied. Nationwide, that number is 79%. But even when there are enough beds for patients, staffing can also prove an issue. Earlier this month, Governor Andy Beshear announced the state's nursing shortage prompted him to declare a state of emergency.

At WCH, Dr. Ryan says a handful of his nursing staff quit this year, citing burnout or vaccine mandates. Now, he's fearful an omicron surge could stress the hospital even further.

"We still don't know what's to come, and that's the scary part," he said.

However, he still hopes the situation will improve as the pandemic stretches into its third year.

"I think every hospital in the state of Kentucky is doing the best they can, and it's a problem we need to face and fix for sure," he said.

Current data from around the world shows omicron may cause less severe sickness than other variants. But last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned a massive onslaught of new infections could still overwhelm hospitals.